The fast track to the NHL is reserved for the few.
Most of the players who sign their first professional contracts face a road filled with obstacles. If you are in too much of a rush, you can get tripped up.
Defenseman Mark Barberio embraced that difficult journey from the start and it is one of the reasons why he is making strong, steady course toward a place on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s blue line.
“It’s really important to develop and work on my game at the AHL level,” said Barberio, a sixth-round draft choice of the Bolts in the 2008 entry draft. “I know it’s not a sprint to the NHL, it’s more of a marathon. There’s a lot to be done and I want to put that work in. My dream is to get there.”
He is well on his way. Barberio had a solid rookie season in 2010-11, but he has raised his level of play for the Norfolk Admirals through the first 28 games. Barberio leads all AHL defensemen with 26 points and is tied for the league lead with a plus-19.
The potential for those types of offensive numbers have always been there for the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Barberio. But Norfolk coach Jon Cooper has seen plenty of progress in the other parts of his game.
“His play in the defensive end and attention to detail has been much better,” Cooper said. “Last year, he was not a penalty killer. This year, he’s slowly becoming one. We pegged him as just a power-play guy, now he’s learning all aspects of the game. All the good ones can play one end of the ice well. The great ones can play both. We’re trying to make him a great one.”
Barberio has 84 shots on goal – third on the team – and three goals. He leads the team in ice time, showing more composure with or without the puck.
“I feel a little more calm defensively,” Barberio said. “Last year and, even at the start of this year, I was trying to rush to get the puck back or get it out of the zone. I think I’m doing a better job of trying to let the game come to me and playing a smart defensive game, keeping things simple.”
Barberio, 21, helped lead Moncton to the Quebec Junior Hockey League title and a spot in the Memorial Cup in 2009-10 before being signed by the Lightning to a three-year entry level deal.
When Barberio reached his first training camp, it looked as though there was a chance he was low enough on a veteran-filled depth chart where he might start his pro career in the East Coast Hockey League. But Cooper said since he and his staff were new, there were no expectations put on players. They all had a clean slate and Barberio used that to his advantage.
“We saw something in him that made us want to keep him in Norfolk,” Cooper said. “He’s got a great attitude. He’s wide-eyed and willing to learn, just a really positive kid. He sees the game before it happens. He’s a hockey player and all he was missing was experience. He’s got all the makings of an NHL defenseman.”
Barberio finished with nine goals and 22 assists and a minus-1 last season, playing 68 games.
This offseason, Barberio worked with his trainer Francois Landreville just outside Montreal for the fifth straight year and he said he gained a lot from his time with the Lightning’s power-skating consultant Barb Underhill.
“I just wanted to improve my overall game and that starts in the gym,” Barberio said. “There’s no level you can reach that’s too high. You can always keep pushing. I feel like I had a very productive summer and it’s paid off so far.”
Barberio met Underhill for the first time at Lightning prospects camp in July and said he was lucky enough work with her for three days just a few weeks before training camp in September.
“The biggest thing is getting the most out of every stride,” said Barberio, who played in one preseason game for the Lightning at St. Louis. “She gives us a few tips on power, but also helps makes us more efficient so we’re not as tired in the third period or if we go to overtime.”
Cooper said being a smart hockey player turns a mediocre skater into a good skater because you are always in position and that has helped Barberio, but he is making positive steps.
Barberio, a left shot, said he is comfortable and can see the ice really well playing the right side. That versatility is another plus for him going forward.
“He needs to be put in situations that, at times, he may struggle in,” Cooper said. “He’s the type of kid that, once he is in these situations, will find a way to succeed and he’s been doing that so far.”
Barberio is a key reason the Admirals are off to a strong start, tied for first in their division at 18-11-1 going into a 10-day layoff. Barberio had five assists and was plus-6 in the final three games before the break.
Winning is most important to Barberio.
“It’s nice to see those numbers every once in a while,” Barberio said. “But I’ve always been a firm believer that any personal success will always come from team success. I’m lucky we’ve got some great guys to play with in Norfolk.”